University courses to develop sustainability changemakers – how they do it at Dal

If you were to set up and run a degree programme to develop students as changemakers for Sustainability, what would that look like?

Steve and Georgia from Dal’s College of Sustainability

At the start of my trip to North America, I had an inspiring morning with Steve Mannell, Georgia Klein and Bridget Graham at Dalhousie University’s College of Sustainability in Halifax, Canada to hear about just that.

Their programme, Environment Sustainability and Society (ESS), is one of a handful in North America that brings together students and staff from diverse backgrounds to study the practice of taking action for sustainability alongside a disciplinary specialism. Students take ESS as one part of a ‘Double Major’ – this means that it is always combined with developing another specialism and that classes have a genuine inter-disciplinary flavour.

ESS has a big focus on developing collaborative and problem-solving skills to address complex sustainability issues. A key part is an extended placement with community organisations or businesses to work on a real-life challenge put forward by these partners. This is combined with a great deal of reflection on these experiences, in writing and in discussion, so students can track how they’ve developed skills and developed insights over time.

ESS is run within Dalhousie’s ‘College of Sustainability’, which was set up as a new college to run the programme around a decade ago. The programme very much sits within its community, with other outward-facing activity. There are public lectures every Thursday night (providing a topic for students’ Friday classes, ensuring good attendance), Monday morning coffee mornings (how I came to make the link) and a Sustainability Leadership Certificate open to all current students and graduates.

Around 500 students have graduated over the past decade, going on to develop social enterprises like Halifax’s first zero waste shop, or working on sustainability within government, in businesses via graduate recruitment schemes or the voluntary sector. They keep in touch with their Alumni, drawing on them as guest speakers and using their future work to show where the programme can take you. This provides reassurance for parents who are sometimes concerned (or at least curious) about the career prospects for someone doing a vocational sustainability degree.

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“ESDG” – addressing the Global Goals via developing sustainability competencies in higher education

At the recent AASHE2018 conference in Pittsburgh, which drew 2000 people to discuss sustainabilty in higher education, I came across a new acronym that gave me a useful lightbulb moment: ESDG.

Universities across the globe, including my own, are rightly starting to focus their attention on addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. These include acting to eliminate hunger and poverty, reducing societal inequalities, ensuring free and fair elections and a lot more. Universities might contribute via their teaching, research and public engagement work, and have a key role in relation to Goal 4 on Education, and Target 4.7 (below).

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

As the SDGs were being formulated, the UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) was coming to a close. As a result, ESD is a well-established (though of course, hotly debated) set of principles and practices for understanding and implementing sustainability education, in universities and elsewhere. DESD was followed by UNESCO’s Global Action Programme (GAP) on ESD, expressed via a Roadmap published by UNESCO. As this was published prior to the SDGs, I gather from an AASHE session that work is underway to explicitly link the SDGs to GAP.

So, with much of the new push for action for sustainability in universities focusing on the SDGs, how can this also incorporate the insights developed on ESD over recent years?

The idea of “ESDG”, which I first heard at AASHE offers a helpful bridge – meaning the kind of education that will support the achievement of the Global Goals.

How to make this concept tangible for university staff and students looking to make ESDG happen? My initial thinking is to suggest working with two main conceptual frameworks: the SDGs and Core Competencies for sustainable development.

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